Building a network of caring to protect students
CASTLE ROCK – It takes everyone working together to protect the 67,000 students of the Douglas County School District (DCSD). Through the vigilance and action of staff, students and parents, potential threats can be identified and disrupted early, as recently shown at Mountain Vista High School.
What you may not know is that there are two teams of dedicated staff members within the District who provide guidance to the school psychologist, school social workers and counselors who assess threats of suicide and violence and then provide whatever mental health support is needed to help involved students.
If you see something, say something
Like a giant net, everyone in the District plays a crucial role in the safety and security of the District-wide community. That is why the District, and specifically the Personalized Learning Department, is continuously working to educate people, so they can recognize warning signs.
“We want our bus drivers, cafeteria staff, front office staff, health room people—everyone to be aware, if you have a kid that is acting differently—if they are distressed, get help,” said Colette Hohnbaum, Ph.D, DCSD’s Mental Health Intervention and Support Coordinator. “We are actively training staff and students to recognize when they or a friend needs help and how to get help. That is the very first step: we need to have all eyes on kids.”
She and her team are working to overcome the reluctance that many people feel in society when it comes to these types of suspicions and concerns. Hohnbaum says it is crucial that people err on the side of caution.
“If you see something, say something,” Hohnbaum explained. “We would much rather talk to a kid, assess them and say, ‘you’re right, you were just blowing steam’ or whatever, than miss one.”
It appears that their efforts are working. The number of suicide and threat assessments conducted in the District have increased in the past couple years. Hohnbaum credits the vigilance of students and staff, as well as anonymous reporting tools like Safe2Tell and Text-A-Tip.
While many students may want confidentiality Hohnbaum recommends being straightforward with students, given the safety concerns.
"Do not promise students blanket confidentiality. Keeping kids safe takes collaboration. It cannot be done in isolation. I often tell students, 'I can keep information confidential, unless I think you or someone else might be hurt. Then I will do anything I can do to keep you safe and other people safe,'” Hohnbaum said, "and that requires me to get other people involved".
Step 1: Help begins with an assessment
When a concern is brought forward, professionals, including school psychologists, counselors and administrators are ready. They begin a suicide or threat assessment, depending on the nature of the situation.
“There is a big overlap between the two. When we do a threat assessment, we screen for suicide. When we do a suicide assessment, we screen for potential of threat towards others,” Hohnbaum explained. “We do an assessment to get a feel how significant the threat is. We are listening for some of the concrete things, like does he or she have a plan, a time, a method?”
They are also looking for certain behavioral risk factors.
“Sometime the kid is bubbling [with anger], but hasn’t come out and said, ‘I’m going to get that kid.’ Often there are other red flags,” Hohnbaum said. The red flags and where they are coming from need to be addressed to decrease risk.
The questions on the two assessments differ, as do the approaches.
In the case of a suicidal student, much of the work is between the school psychologist, school social worker or counselor and the student. While parents and pertinent staff are brought in to the conversation and safety plans, much of the work is establishing a human, caring connection and a conversation regarding the value of life.
“Many times I just say, ‘You are too important to me to let me think that you’re going to walk out this door and get hurt,’ Hohnbaum said.
She always looks for what she calls a “turning point” – a foothold that can help a suicidal student climb away from the edge.
“It is a movement towards, ‘I want to live,’” Hohnbaum said. “Then I see how far I can take that, asking what they feel they need to stay safe.”
During a threat assessment, on the other hand, far more people are involved—including the District’s partners in law enforcement, District Security, private therapists, etc.
“We talk to everybody to get as much information as we can,” Hohnbaum said. “We interview the kid, the parent, the teachers who know them, peers that may have heard the threat, peers who are their friends. We also look at social media as best we can and check the student’s records.”
The outcomes in both cases may be similar. If the threat to themselves or others is credible and imminent, the school works with our law enforcement partners.
Law enforcement can place a student on a Mental Health Hold (M-1) if the student appears to be an imminent danger to him or herself or place the student in custody if they are at risk for endangering others.
All threats are addressed, even when they are not deemed imminent. For instance, Hohnbaum says threat assessments are still conducted, even if the student is a kindergartner.
“Sometimes a student may not have the capacity to carry out the threat, but we will still address what they said or did,” Hohnbaum said. “We will work with them on how to handle conflict. We can talk to them about not using certain words or making threats, because they hurt people’s feelings.”
Step 2: A plan is developed
Once the immediate threat is disrupted, the focus turns to providing students with the support they need. The goal is for the student to eventually transition back to normal.
“We develop a plan. ‘How will we know you are safe here?’ We use a lot of check-ins.
“We know the biggest protective factor is an adult who ‘sees’ the kid. Someone who cares about them as an individual,” said Hohnbaum, a former psychologist at ThunderRidge High School. “If that person sees them every morning, they feel connected to the school. They are strengthened and less likely do harm to themselves or others."
The check-in is the perfect opportunity to ask how the student is doing and to gauge their behavior.
“Sometimes they come in and it is not good,” Hohnbaum said. “I would have them stay and together we would work through whatever was going on.
It is important to note—if a student appears to be suicidal they are never left alone.
Additionally, if warranted to protect others, students may be escorted to and from school and even from class to class. Their schedule may also be changed or they and their lockers may be regularly screened for weapons.
“We work to disrupt the plan,” Hohnbaum said. “We line out all the factors – how are we going to disrupt the plan, increase supervision, and mitigate the risk factors at school. We try to partner with parents and suggest what might be helpful at home. Perhaps there needs to be more after school supervision. We can’t dictate it, but we can suggest it.”
Step 3: Leveraging targeted & intensive supports
While many of the 21st Century Skills that can help students navigate these issues, like resiliency and collaboration, are taught at the universal level in classrooms, some students need additional support in behavior.
These students may be provided targeted or intensive programming to support them with certain behaviors, depending on the severity.
“If a student needs more intensive behavioral support, they may be placed on an more rigorous plan and/or may be considered for an IEP (Individualized Education Program),” Hohnbaum said. “The mental health professionals in the school may see them once a week, three times a week or sometimes every day, although usually not for extended periods of time, to get the student past the crisis; some students need much more packed around them in order to function—sometimes to be safe. We help them to learn ways to work through issues and how to stay safe.”
Two District level teams not only work to update the safety assessments, but then to support schools as they implement this programming.
Threat Assessment Team
Suicide Assessment Team
Dedicated to continuous improvement
Like many other school districts, the systems DCSD uses are built upon the lessons learned from tragedies. Efforts are made to continuously analyze and update protocols, as there are new developments.
For instance, in January, the District-level threat assessment team has been reviewing the report from the shooting at Arapahoe High School, in hopes of learning from any gaps discovered there.
“We read reports such as from Arapahoe or Sandy Hook, as soon as we can find them. We go through them thoroughly and ask, ‘Do we need to build that in?’ We want to make sure we don’t have holes,” Hohnbaum said. “We do not want our system to fail.”
Hohnbaum says the goal is to help prepare the staff at schools so they are well informed and can take a multi-perspective approach as they conduct these assessments and make these difficult decisions.
"The assessments can be very taxing for the professionals. It is not just the time that you spend working on an assessment, but the concern that comes with trying to keep students safe. It take a toll," Hohnbaum said. "It is difficult to know kids are distressed to the point that they consider hurting themselves or other. You try to do whatever you can to keep students safe."